Saturday, June 19, 2010

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Creative ‘JOSEPH’ at Mercury Summerstock

“Way way back, many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began,” Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, becomes he pride-and-joy of the Pharaoh, and is reunited with his siblings when they come to Egypt for food during a famine. This is how the tale of ‘JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT’ develops. The script is filled with all sorts of musical treats ranging from western to calypso, to laments, to ballads, and includes such great songs as “Any Dream Will Do,” “Poor, Poor Joseph,” “Close Every Door,” and “You Are What You Feel.”

A version of the Joseph legend is now on stage at the Brooks Theatre of the Cleveland Play House, under the sponsorship of Mercury SummerStock, Cleveland’s summertime theatre, that much like the Jews of old, keeps wandering in the desert (urban desert, that is) in search of a home. Their latest camping site, Parma Little Theatre, was lost due to budgetary cuts in the city’s schools. So, for a short time, Mercury is making a sojourn into the oasis called, Cleveland Play House, before it goes off looking for its promised land.

The script for ‘JOSEPH’ has an unusual history. It was originally conceived by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to be a short school skit. It eventually grew into a series of songs that were sung as a concert. It was never intended to be a staged musical. In fact, there is no actual script, just a series of songs. There are no spoken lines and the authors have given no directions for the staging. Because of this, every production of the play has a personality all its own.

Mercury’s Artistic Director, Pierre-Jacques Brault’s vision is a black-and-white early Hollywood movie. As Brault explains it, “Set on an MGM soundstage in the Golden Age of cinema, Cecil B. Demille’s latest epic ‘Joseph,’ is fixed to star the iconic characters that made headlines through the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rudolph Valentino, W. C. Fields, Mae West, The Little Rascals, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers are all on hand to playfully spin the Old Testament tale.”

And, in general, that’s what we see on the Brooks’ stage. The costumes are almost all black and white, the old time stars are generally recognizable, and most of the machinations fit into the songs. But the rub is that Brault doesn’t always pay attention to the words which the musically gifted cast is singing.

We are told Joseph’s coat is composed of over 30 different colors. Well, Joseph’s cutaway is basically black with a few other colors, but definitely not “azure, and lemon and russet and gray.” Nor, does it ever get “ripped up.” In “Those Canaan Days” we see a delightful Charley Chaplin depiction of his balloon “shtick” (nicely done by Brian Marshall). Cute, yes, but the song is about the brothers being so hungry that “no one comes to dinner now, we’d only eat them anyhow.” Hmm? Okay, so Joseph and his brothers finally reunite, supposedly after Joseph “hands them sacks of food” (oops, those are orange crates which easily reveal that he has “planted a cup in Young Benjamin’s sack.” And, then there’s the big climax when “Joseph went to meet him [Abraham] in his chariot of gold.’ (Nope, Abraham walks over to Joseph.) Am I being picky? Probably, but words to songs are written for a purpose and must be adhered to, especially in a show that is totally depended on the meanings of the words of the songs.

So, do these deviancies from the author’s intentions ruin the production? Not really. The show is generally audience pleasing, which was evidenced by the screaming ovation at the end of the show the night I saw it. But, were they listening to the words?

The cast is filled with excellent voices and some good actors. Brault’s dividing up the role of the narrator gives each of the cast members solos. Nice idea to show off their individual talents.

Going against type, Jonathan Ramos portrays Joseph. The part is usually portrayed by a singer with a big voice and stud body. The slightly built Ramos has a pleasant sound, with a limited range. He adds a cute vulnerability to the role, which may not be what we want in a Biblical hero, but it works in its own way.

The cast has some difficulty carrying out Brault’s creative choreography because there are just too many people for the postage stamp-sized stage. Less bodies in the dance, or using the aisles might have helped the dancers from bumping into each other and allowing Brault’s choreography to be clearly displayed.

Musical Director Eddie Carney goes a great job of keeping his well-tuned orchestra under control so they back up, rather than drown out the singers.

Margaret Ruble’s black and white costumes are creative and lend credence to the old movie theme.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mercury’s ‘JOSEPH’ is audience pleasing, in spite of some lapses in words versus image issues. Most people attending will enjoy it, and it’s a good production for the whole family to see. So, “Go, Go Joseph.”